Winchester Thurston girls basketball players take a knee during national anthem

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Friday, January 12, 2018 | 2:57 PM


As her Winchester Thurston basketball teammates stood at the foul line facing the American flag, senior Ayanna Townsend borrowed the announcer’s microphone.

“This year our team has chosen to kneel during the national anthem,” Townsend told the home crowd Thursday night, reading a statement the players crafted to explain a decision they know many won’t support. “We don’t believe we should stand for a song that refers to our country as the land of the free and home of the brave when racism, sexism and discrimination are prominent factors in our daily lives. We are a diverse team and want to show that we are all affected by inequality in this country.”

Then together they knelt.

Some fans joined the demonstration and stayed seated in the crowd of a few dozen.

The Winchester Thurston girls are believed to be the first WPIAL team to join athletes across the country who have knelt during the national anthem. The Bears remained on one knee while an instrumental recording of the song played before Thursday’s section game against Aquinas Academy.

“We all accepted the fact that we might have backlash,” senior Luka van de Venne said. “But at the end of the day, maybe a few bad calls isn’t worth us not speaking up. We all thought speaking up was the most important thing about the season. We want to make a difference, and we want to make a change.”

Winchester Thurston, a small, private school in Shadyside, won the WPIAL Class A title last season.

When the team first discussed kneeling this winter, coach Monica Williams said no and insisted it shouldn’t be an empty gesture.

“I told them we will not kneel for the national anthem if it’s just because everybody else is doing it,” Williams said. “There has to be a reason behind it.”

So the players researched the topic, drafted a report on social inequality and presented their thoughts to the entire school, said Williams, adding that “everybody loved it.” “We showed her all the examples of sexism, racism and all of the things happening in America right now,” van de Venne said. “How the national anthem is saying ‘land of the free’ but it’s still not free. There’s so much going on that I think she eventually understood our reasoning.”

The team’s seniors shared their information with classmates during a school-wide session Thursday. Townsend and van de Venne said the national anthem was also a previous discussion topic in class.

“I personally cannot stand for a song that allows sexism and allows racism and allows all of these things,” van de Venne said. “At the time (the song) was written it was even worse. And it’s still bad, and people are saying: ‘Oh, it’s so much better.’ But that doesn’t mean it’s not bad. That doesn’t mean these issues don’t exist.”

“It just hit us I guess,” Townsend said. “It’s like when you listen to a song with bad words. And then your mom says, what did you just say? And then you actually listen to the words and say, I probably shouldn’t sing that song anymore.”

Gary J. Niels, head of school at Winchester Thurston, met with the basketball team’s captains in December and found their explanation “very thoughtful.”

“What I said to them was, the school really believes in supporting students in their beliefs and in their statements … and we would support them,” Niels said. “This is not a political statement on the part of the school. Our school spans the political spectrum with the families here. But this is the school’s decision to support their students in their own quest to understand and view the world in their own ways.”

The basketball teams plans to kneel before each home game but will stand for the national anthem in other teams’ gyms, Williams said. Thursday was the second time this season the team had knelt. The first was before a home game Jan. 4 against Clairton.

“When we did it the first time, the whole audience kneeled too,” Williams said. “It was like nobody stood up. It was really crazy and I was shocked it was taken that well. … Maybe one person stood up in the stands.”

The reaction Thursday was mixed with some fans standing and others seated. The players understood that they were wading into a divisive issue and know there’s likely resistance ahead.

“Obviously, we’re not looking for people to physically hurt us because of it,” Townsend said. “If people are in the stands, they can think what they want and say what they want. We just have to be mentally prepared for that.”

Athletic director Kevin Miller said he notified visiting teams and the game officials in advance that the girls planned to kneel. Aquinas Academy’s players stood.

“I want them to be aware,” Miller said. “I think that’s important for folks coming into our building, so they know what’s going to happen. We certainly don’t want to surprise anybody. Those folks have been very receptive.”

Niels, who oversees the school, said he was understandably concerned with how others would view the team’s decision and whether that could cause unwanted attention. “Most school heads today are trying to figure out how to navigate these very difficult political waters that we’re in,” Niels said. “But I think we’re also really interested in standing by our students and their beliefs.”

Chris Harlan is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at charlan@tribweb.com or via Twitter @CHarlan_Trib.

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